Sputnik crisis

Soviet stamp depicting Sputnik's orbit around Earth

The Sputnik Crisis was a period of public fear and anxiety about the perceived technological gap between the United States and Soviet Union caused by the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite.[1] The crisis was a key event in the early Cold War that triggered the creation of NASA and Space Race between the two superpowers. The satellite was launched on October 4, 1957 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The term was coined by then US President Dwight D. Eisenhower.


The United States was the dominant world power in the early 1950s. U.S. U-2 spy-plane flights over the Soviet Union provided intelligence that it held the advantage in nuclear arms.[2] Studies conducted between 1955 and 1961 reported that the Soviet Union was training two to three times as many scientists per year than the United States.[3] The launch and orbit of Sputnik 1 suggested that America's challenger had made a substantial leap forward in technology and posed a serious threat to American "national security". This spurred the United States to make substantial federal investments in research and development, education and "national security".[2] The Juno I rocket that carried the first U.S. satellite Explorer 1 had been ready to launch in 1956, but that fact was classified and unknown to the public.[4] The Army's PGM-19 Jupiter from which Juno was derived had been mothballed on the orders of defense secretary Charles Erwin Wilson amid interservice rivalry with the Air Force's PGM-17 Thor.[4]


The USSR used ICBM technology to launch Sputnik into space. This essentially gave the Soviets two propaganda victories at once (sending the satellite into space and proving the distance capabilities of their missiles).[5] This proved that the Soviets had rockets capable of sending nuclear weapons from Russia to Europe and even North America. This was the most immediate threat that the launch of Sputnik 1 posed. Not only did the Soviet Union have this ability, the United States did not. America, a land with a history of geographical security, suddenly seemed vulnerable. Overall, what caused the fear for the American people was not the satellite itself but more so the rocket that put Sputnik into orbit.

A contributing factor to the Sputnik Crisis was that the Soviets had not released a photograph of the satellite for five days after the launch.[5] Until this point, its appearance remained a mystery to Americans. Another factor was Sputnik's weight of 184 pounds (83 kg) which dwarfed the United States' plans to launch a satellite of 21.5 pounds (9.8 kg).[5] The Soviet claim was outrageous to many American officials who doubted its accuracy. US rockets at the time produced 150,000 pounds-force (670,000 N) of thrust and US officials presumed that the Soviet rocket that launched Sputnik into space had to have produced 200,000 pounds-force (890,000 N) of thrust. In fact, the R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik 1 into space produced almost 1,000,000 pounds-force (4,400,000 N) of thrust.[5] All these factors contributed to the American people's perception that they were greatly behind the Soviets in the development of space technologies.

Hours after the launch, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Astronomy Department rigged an ad-hoc interferometer to measure signals from the satellite.[1] Donald B. Gillies and Jim Snyder programmed the ILLIAC I computer to calculate the satellite orbit from this data. The programming and calculation was completed in less than two days. The rapid publication of the ephemeris (orbit) in the journal Nature within a month of the satellite launch[6] helped to dispel some of the fear created by the Sputnik launch by the Soviet Union. It also lent credence to the spurious idea that the Sputnik launch was part of an organized effort to dominate space.[7]

The successful launch of Sputnik 1 and the subsequent failure of the first two Project Vanguard launch attempts, greatly accentuated the perception in the United States of a threat from the Soviet Union, a perception that had persisted since the Cold War began after World War II. The same rocket that launched Sputnik could send a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes, stripping the continental United States of its oceanic defenses. The Soviets had demonstrated this capability on 21 August with a 6,000-kilometer (3,700 mi) test flight of the R-7 booster. The event was announced by TASS five days later and was widely reported in the magazine Aviation Week amongst other media.

Eisenhower's reaction

Five days after the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, Eisenhower addressed the people of the United States. After being asked by a reporter about security concerns regarding the Russian satellite, Eisenhower had to show the people that there was nothing to fear. He said "Now, so far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota".[5]

Eisenhower's response was a calculated one that attempted to undermine the media hysteria that was being generated in the wake of the Sputnik event. Eisenhower made the argument that Sputnik was only a scientific achievement and not a military threat or change in world power. Eisenhower believed that Sputnik's weight "was not commensurate with anything of great military significance, and that was also a factor in putting it in [proper] perspective".[5] This perspective was gained by Eisenhower through his military experience that taught him that perfecting a weapon as complex as the ICBM would take years, even if it had been successfully tested.

In 1958 Eisenhower declared three "stark facts" the United States must confront in the foreseeable future. First, the USSR had surpassed the United States and "the rest of the free world" in scientific and technological advancements in outer space. Second, if the USSR maintains this superiority it may use it as a means to undermine the United States' prestige and leadership. Third, if the USSR is the first to achieve significantly superior military capability in outer space and create an imbalance of power it could pose a direct military threat to the United States.[8] However, Eisenhower followed this statement by saying that the United States needs to meet these challenges with "resourcefulness and vigor".[8] Eisenhower's ability to display confidence about the situation was limited because it was based on clandestine reconnaissance.[8] As such, Eisenhower failed to quell the fears that there was a shift in power between the Americans and Soviets.[8] The perception of the Soviets as more modern than Americans was reinforced by Eisenhower's old fashioned style.[9] The launch of Sputnik 1 also impacted Eisenhower's ratings in the polls from which he eventually recovered.[5]

Media and political influences

The media stirred a moral panic by writing sensational pieces on the event. In the first and second days following the event, New York Times wrote that the launch of Sputnik 1 was a major global propaganda and prestige triumph for Russian Communism.[10] It was not until after the people of the United States were exposed to a multitude of news reports did it become a "nation in shock".[10] The media not only reported public concern, it also created the hysteria.[10] Journalists greatly exaggerated the danger of the Soviet satellite for their own benefit.[10] On October 9, 1957, notable science fiction writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke said that the day Sputnik orbited around the Earth the United States became a second-rate power.[10]

Politicians used the event to bolster their ratings in polls.[5] Research and development was used as a propaganda tool and congress spent large sums of money on the perceived problem of American technological deficiency.[9] After the launch of Sputnik 1 national security advisers overestimated the USSR's current and potential rocket strength which alarmed portions of congress and the executive branch.[10] When these estimations were released, Eisenhower was forced into an accelerated missile race to appease those concerned with America's safety.[10] Sputnik provoked congress into taking action on improving the United States' standing in the fields of science.

The Soviets also had a hand in the political exploitation of the event. Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the USSR, reflected on the event saying "It always sounded good to say in public speeches that we could hit a fly at any distance with our missiles. Despite the wide radius of destruction caused by our nuclear warheads, pinpoint accuracy was still necessary- and it was difficult to achieve".[5] At the time, Khrushchev stated that "our potential enemies cringe in fright".[5] Political analyst Samuel Lubell conducted research on public opinion about Sputnik and found "no evidence at all of any panic or hysteria in the public's reaction" confirming that it was an elite, not popular, panic.[10]


The launch spurred a series of initiatives by the United States,[11] ranging from defense to education. Increased emphasis was placed on the Navy's Project Vanguard to launch an American satellite into orbit. The preceding Explorer program that saw the Army launch the first American satellite into orbit on 31 January 1958 also saw a revival.[12] By February 1958, the military-industrial complex wanted a high-level Department of Defense (DoD) organization to execute R&D projects and created the Advanced Research Projects Agency. This was later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. On 29 July 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, the creation of NASA.[11]

Less than a year after the Sputnik launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). The act was a four-year program that poured billions of dollars into the US education system. In 1953 the government spent $153 million, and colleges took $10 million of that funding; however, by 1960 the combined funding grew almost six-fold because of the NDEA.[13] After the initial public shock, the Space Race began, leading to the first human launched into space, Project Apollo and the first humans to land on the Moon in 1969.[14]

Campaigning in 1960 on closing the "missile gap",[15] Eisenhower's successor John F. Kennedy decided to deploy 1,000 Minuteman missiles. This was many more ICBMs than the Soviets had at the time.[16] Though Kennedy did not favor a massive US manned space program while in the US Senate during Eisenhower's term, public reaction to the Soviet's launching the first human into orbit, Yuri Gagarin, on 12 April 1961 led Kennedy to raise the stakes of the Space Race by setting the goal of landing men on the Moon. Kennedy claimed that "If the Soviets control space they can control the earth, as in past centuries the nation that controlled the seas dominated the continents".[9] Eisenhower disagreed with Kennedy's goal, referring to it as a "stunt".[5] Kennedy had privately acknowledged that the space race was a waste of money, but he knew there were benefits from a frightened electorate.[9] The space race was less about its intrinsic importance and more about prestige and calming the public.

The Sputnik Crisis shifted US efforts in space to an obsession of taking the lead from the Soviets, a situation that would not change until the moon landing.[8] American officials had a variety of opinions at the time, some were alarmed and some dismissed the satellite. Gerald Ford, former Republican congressman of Michigan, had stated that "We Middle Westerners are sometimes called isolationists. I don't agree with the label; but there can be no isolationists anywhere when a thermonuclear warhead can flash down from space at hypersonic speed to reach any spot on Earth minutes after its launching".[5] Former United States Rear Admiral Rawson Bennett, chief of naval operations, stated that Sputnik was a "hunk of iron almost anybody could launch".[5]

The Sputnik Crisis also spurred substantial transformation in the United States' science policy which provided much of the basis for modern academic science.[17] In the mid-1960s NASA went on to provide almost 10 percent of the federal funds for academic research.[17]

Further expansion was made in the funding and research of space weapons and missile defense in the form of anti-ballistic missile proposals.[8] Education programs were initiated to foster a new generation of engineers and support was dramatically increased for scientific research.[18] Congress increased the National Science Foundation (NSF) appropriation for 1959 to $134 million, almost $100 million higher than the year before. By 1968, the NSF budget stood at nearly $500 million.

Americans experienced a "techno-other void" after the Sputnik crisis and continue to express longing for "another Sputnik" to boost education and innovation. During the 1980s, the rise of Japan filled that void temporarily. Following the Sputnik crisis, leaders exploited an "awe doctrine" to organize learning "around a single model of educational national security: with math and science serving for supremacy in science and engineering, foreign languages and cultures for potential espionage, and history and humanities for national self-definition". American leaders were not able to exploit the image of Japan as effectively, despite its representations of super-smart students and a strong economy.[19]


In Britain the Sputnik crisis was much less visible and reaction to the launch suggested an appreciation of the novelty of the Space Age. It eventually became part of the Cold War narrative when the Soviets launched a dog into space in November 1957.[20] Sputnik 2, which launched the Soviet dog Laika into space was seen less as a threat and more so as a propaganda maneuver.[9]

See also


  1. 1 2 "Some History of the Department of Astronomy". University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Archived from the original on 4 May 2007.
  2. 1 2 Kay, Sean (April–May 2013). "America's Sputnik Moments". Survival. doi:10.1080/00396338.2013.784470.
  3. Kaiser, David (2006). "The Physics of Spin: Sputnik Politics and American Physicists in the 1950s". Social Research.
  4. 1 2 Macdougall, Ian (August 15, 2016). "The Leak Prosecution That Lost the Space Race". The Atlantic.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Mieczkowski, Yanek (2013). Eisenhower's Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige. United States of America: Cornell University Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-8014-5150-8.
  6. King, I. R.; McVittie, G. C.; Swenson, G. W.; Wyatt, S. P. (9 November 1957). "Further observations of the first satellite". Nature (4593): 943. doi:10.1038/180943a0.
  7. Isachenkov, Vladimir (1 October 2007). "Secrets of Sputnik Launch Revealed". USA Today. Associated Press. Archived from the original on 13 February 2014. Retrieved 13 February 2014.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Peoples, Columba (2008). "Sputnik and 'Skill Thinking' Revisited: Technological Determinism in American Responses to the Soviet Missile Threat". Cold War History.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 DeGroot, Gerard (December 2007). "Sputnik 1957". American History.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 McQuaid, Kim (2007). "Sputnik Reconsidered: Image and Reality in the Early Space Age". Canadian Review of American Studies.
  11. 1 2 History Channel (2012a).
  12. Schefter (1999), pp. 25–26.
  13. Layman & Tompkins (1994), p. 190.
  14. DeNooyer (2007).
  15. Dickson (2003), pp. 5–6, 160—162.
  16. Dickson (2003), pp. 213–214.
  17. 1 2 Geiger, Roger (1997). "What Happened After Sputnik? Shaping University Research in the United States.". Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning, & Policy.
  18. Totten, Michael (26 September 2013). "The Effects of the Cold War on us Education". Education Space 360. Retrieved 15 August 2014.
  19. Thorsten (2012), p. 74.
  20. Barnett, Nicholas (2013). "Russia Wins Space Race: The British Press and the Sputnik Moment, 1957". Media History. 19 (2): 182–195. doi:10.1080/13688804.2013.791419.


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